WASHINGTON - While some groups say additional food stamp cuts would significantly worsen hunger problems, Republican House members from Tennessee argue the program has enough waste to justify large-scale reductions.
The future of food stamps -- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- remains the largest sticking point in House-Senate negotiations to finalize a new farm bill before the end of the year.
In September, the House approved a farm bill that cuts almost $40 billion from food stamps over 10 years - about 5 percent a year. The Senate earlier approved a bill that would cut $4 billion over that time.
The cuts would be in addition to the expiration of some benefits that occurred in November. Those had been part of the 2009 economic stimulus package.
At $80 billion a year, food stamps remain the single costliest item in the farm bill. The program serves almost 48 million Americans and 1.34 million Tennesseans - about 20 percent of the state population.
Among House members from Tennessee, all but Democratic Reps. Jim Cooper of Nashville and Steve Cohen of Memphis voted for the bill making $40 billion in cuts.
Groups such as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank, say cuts of that magnitude would result in denying benefits to 3.8 million low-income Americans in 2014.
"Those who would be thrown off the program include some of the nation's most destitute adults, as well as many low-income children, seniors, and families that work for low wages," the CBPP said in an analysis of the House bill. "The House SNAP bill is harsh."
Cooper and Cohen agreed.
"I voted against these drastic cuts because too many middle Tennesseans are struggling with hunger," Cooper said in a statement.
And Cohen said $40 billion "in Draconian cuts to this critical program would take food right out of their mouths, all in the name of so-called 'fraud.' Where is the Republican outrage over the billions in fraud at the Pentagon and with defense contractors?"
But Tennessee Republicans say any program so large should be able to withstand cuts as part of efforts to reduce federal deficits.
"I continue to support commonsense efforts to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse within the SNAP program," said Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Jasper.
"I hope the conferees will strike an appropriate balance that ensures those who truly need benefits will continue to have access to them, while also making necessary reforms to ensure the SNAP program remains solvent. Over the last five years, SNAP spending has increased more than 70 percent. Clearly this trajectory is unsustainable."
Comments by other Tennessee Republicans include:
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood: "The House bill does not take a single benefit away from those who truly need government assistance. It simply reforms the SNAP program to serve those most in need while ensuring the fiscal well-being of our nation during these difficult economic times."
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City: "Given this explosion in spending, finding $4 billion in waste, fraud or abuse from this program annually should be possible without significantly impacting those most in need of food security."
Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Frog Jump: "We don't have the details of a final farm bill just yet, but the House has always been focused on making sure that there is funding for those who are truly in need."
Rep. John Duncan, R-Knoxville: "Eligibility requirements have been eased, and those who run the program have no incentive to keep people off. They will get bigger offices, staffs and funding if even more people get food stamps."
Reps. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, and Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, did not respond to requests for comment.